EU-UK relations – developments on the Horizon?

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At the start of July 2023, press reports indicated that the UK and EU were close to agreeing the terms of the UK’s participation in the European Union’s funding programme for research and innovation – Horizon Europe.  At the time of publication, no deal has yet been agreed with talks scheduled between the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission at the NATO summit in Vilnius not reportedly focussing on Horizon Europe.  This blog sets out the background to Horizon Europe, why it has taken so long to finalise UK association to it and what association might mean for Scotland. 

What is Horizon Europe?

Horizon Europe is the European Union’s funding programme for research and innovation.  It runs from 2021 to 2027.  The programme is worth €95.5 billion over the course of the seven years. 

The Horizon Europe programme is structured under three pillars:

  1. Excellent science
  2. Global challenges and European industrial competitiveness
  3. Innovative Europe

Within pillar two, a number of priority areas for action, classed as missions have been identified “to increase the effectiveness of funding by pursuing clearly defined targets with a concrete impact on citizen’s daily lives”.  According to the European Commission, the missions are:

“a new way to bring concrete solutions to some of our greatest challenges. They have ambitious goals and will deliver concrete results by 2030.

They will deliver impact by putting research and innovation into a new role, combined with new forms of governance and collaboration, as well as by engaging citizens.”

The identified missions for the 2021 to 2027 programme are:

  • Adaptation to Climate Change: support at least 150 European regions and communities to become climate resilient by 2030.
  • Cancer: working with Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan to improve the lives of more than 3 million people by 2030 through prevention, cure and solutions to live longer and better.
  • Restore our Ocean and Waters by 2030.
  • 100 Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities by 2030.
  • A Soil Deal for Europe: 100 living labs and lighthouses to lead the transition towards healthy soils by 2030.

Calls for funding proposals and tenders are published on the European Commission Single Electronic Data Interchange Area.

Association to Horizon Europe

Whilst participation in Horizon Europe is automatic for all 27 EU Member States, other countries outside of the EU (often referred to as third countries) can also participate in the programme as an associated country.  According to the European Commission, Horizon Europe is:

“One of the main tools to implement Europe’s strategy for international cooperation: the global approach to research and innovation.

The programme is open to researchers and innovators from around the globe who are encouraged to team up with EU partners in preparing proposals.”

Association to Horizon Europe is described by the European Commission as “the closest form of cooperation with non-EU countries, which allows entities of associated countries to participate in programme actions on equal terms with entities of EU countries”. The disadvantage of association to rather than full membership of Horizon Europe is that it means there is no opportunity to shape the direction and objectives of the Horizon Europe programme. 

From a UK perspective, eligibility to participate as an associate country is covered by the category of countries which are “third countries and territories that fulfil a set of criteria related to their economic, political and research and innovation systems”.  An example of another country which has negotiated associate status is Israel, whilst the recently agreed EU-New Zealand free trade agreement foresees New Zealand associating to Horizon Europe.  In addition, the European Commission is continuing to negotiate with Canada and South Korea for associate memberships.

Why has agreeing UK association to Horizon Europe taken so long?

The UK formally left the previous Horizon programme (Horizon 2020) when it left the EU’s legal framework at the end of 2020. However, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement made provision for UK participation in the Horizon Europe programme as an associated third country subject to the agreement of the terms of participation.  A key requirement for UK association to the programme was agreement of a UK financial contribution to the programme.

Agreeing the terms of UK association to Horizon Europe has taken longer than might have been expected.  The delays were primarily because of the deterioration in EU-UK relations due to disagreements about the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.  These disagreements meant the European Commission delayed negotiations on the terms of Horizon Europe association. 

When agreement of the Windsor Framework was announced at the end of February 2023, the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen signalled that she was “happy to start immediately, right now, the work on an association agreement which is the precondition to join Horizon Europe.”

The delay in agreeing association now appears to centre on the size of the UK contribution to the Horizon Europe programme.  On 11 July 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told reporters:

“Our preference is to associate to Horizon but we need to make sure that we do that on terms that work for the U.K. and are in the U.K.’s best interests,

Those conversations are ongoing and it is important that we give those conversations the time to conclude. There’s no point in doing something that is not in the interests of British taxpayers or British researchers and scientists.”

Despite the final terms of UK participation still being subject to negotiation, UK bodies have been able to participate in the Horizon Europe programme.  The European Commission explained the situation in the following way:

“The General Annexes attached to the main Horizon Europe work programmes (2021-2022 and 2023-2024) ensure that UK applicants are treated as if the UK is an associated country throughout the process, from admissibility and eligibility to evaluation, up until the preparation of grant agreements. However, grant agreements can only be signed if the association has come into force. The same treatment is also granted to any applicants from other associated countries currently engaged with the European Commission in an active process of association.”

To ensure successful UK applicants to Horizon Europe are able to participate in projects, the UK Government provided a guarantee of funding.  The guarantee means that “Eligible, successful applicants to Horizon Europe will receive the full value of their funding at their UK host institution for the lifetime of their grant”. 

The duration of the UK guarantee has been extended on a number of occasions, most recently to cover all Horizon Europe calls that close on or before 30 September 2023.  According to the UK Government, grants worth over £1 billion have been issued since the guarantee was originally launched in November 2021.

However, despite the UK Guarantee, universities across the UK have continued to call for the finalisation of UK association to Horizon Europe.  Writing for The Herald newspaper, Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Glasgow, set out the challenges presented by the lack of formal association:

“The greatest challenge for institutions has been navigating this uncertainty. We have had to reassure European partners that joint projects will be supported for the duration of their lifecycles. We also lost some European Research Council (ERC) grant-holders who preferred to move their grants to EU-based universities.”

Scotland and Horizon

The potential value to Scotland of Horizon Europe is demonstrated by the figures for Scotland’s participation in Horizon 2020 – the EU’s previous research and innovation programme which ran from 2014-2020.  According to the Scottish Government:

“Scottish organisations secured a total of €852.6 million of the Horizon 2020 budget (up to July 2021). This represents 1.29% of the budget allocated so far or 11.14% of the total funding awarded to UK organisations.

This includes over €645.5 million to higher education institutions and over €47.5 million to research institutes.

Small-to-medium-sized enterprises have secured €98.89 million of the €126.6 million secured by Scottish businesses.”

Sir Anton Muscatelli set out the importance of association to Horizon Europe:

“We know that excellent research and scientific breakthroughs in the 21st century necessitate collaboration. The Horizon Europe Scheme has no close competitors as a transnational funding arrangement…

… Scotland is fortunate to have a number of the world’s top 100 universities. We’re at the cutting edge of technologies like quantum and AI, and we’re home to globally-competitive clusters in life sciences and creative economies which have high potential for growth and which can be deployed to address the stubborn socioeconomic and health challenges we face. As a sector we are hugely collaborative, between ourselves and across the UK and internationally, so exclusion from Horizon Europe only works to our detriment.

If we are serious about tackling global challenges like the climate emergency, then we need schemes like Horizon Europe – not only for funding, but for the opportunities for collaboration and knowledge exchange across borders.”

Improving EU-UK relations

EU-UK relations have improved significantly as a result of the agreement of the Windsor Framework, this was confirmed by UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverley when he spoke at the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly in Brussels on 3 July 2023. 

Agreement of UK association to Horizon Europe would be a further indication of a positive trend in the EU-UK relationship and may allow both sides to examine ways in which they can further collaborate in the future. 

Iain McIver, SPICe Research